From My Mother’s Kitchen: Sarah’s Salmon
DISH: Seared Salmon with Green Sauce
TYPE: Simple, Fresh Ingredients
MAIN INGREDIENT: Salmon, Fresh Herbs, Olive Oil
Even the Quarter-Life Cook must admit that some things will never taste quite as good from her kitchen as they do from the outside world. Though I don’t support the establishment, my French Fries will never compare to the treatment of the double deep fryers at McDonald’s; after intensive shucking lessons, I somehow still think I would prefer an oyster from the Pearl Oyster Bar over my own; even if I had the famous secret recipe and my own brick oven, I would still haul my butt out to Brooklyn for a slice of Grimaldi’s pizza; and, in this case, though I have all the tools at hand and have been given the not-so-secret recipes, I opt for my mother’s fish in her kitchen over my own.
Since I’ve already featured her garlic soup, semi-sweet potato mash, and overcome my own fear of the ghastly green goop she keeps in the refrigerator, my father and I were hard pressed to land on one recipe that could be considered my mother’s quintessential dish. She just has a way with fish, he said. And remembering my first botched attempt at seared salmon in high school (with my mother on the phone dictating the steps), I had to agree.
To describe her cuisine: in short, it’s what’s to be expected from a practiced homeopath whose supermarket spoils when I was growing up were large in part from the health food store, her habits years ahead of the time. Simple. Local. Organic. Now with a Whole Foods and a weekly farmer’s market just a stone’s throw from my apartment, these are tenets I can feasibly live by in my quarter-life. And though fresh fish and fresh herbs, which go bad in a matter of days, are not the most budget-friendly or convenient, I’ll find myself craving the seafood of my childhood and splurge every once in a while on some tilapia and a basket full of herbs. But even in these quarter-life efforts, no matter how I do it—roast, poach, or pan-sear–my fish tastes good, but never as good as my mother’s.
Part of these memories come from my childhood summers at my grandparent’s house on Martha’s Vineyard. There, the seafood is bought fresh from the fish monger at Edgartown Seafood, and the herbs are harvested daily from the garden at Morning Glory Farm. Not even the mayo my mother uses for shrimp salad comes from a jar. When my dad would inevitably invite ten people over for dinner against her will, her classic solution for a quick meal for ten was a huge fillet of salmon baked to perfection in the oven and slathered with herb butter upon its trip to the table.
But the memory that strikes me most from my childhood is the green sauce. It combines the two main staples of my mother’s cooking—fresh herbs and mayonnaise—which in her eyes can be added separately to anything and everything, and together, make the world a better place to eat in.
To satisfy some preemptive cravings before visiting my parents for Mother’s Day—I just got my wisdom teeth out, and am thereby limited to green goop this weekend—I decided to make another attempt at my mother’s seared salmon with green sauce. With two varieties of fresh herbs instead of four, my version didn’t quite have the heavenly fresh punch as the one I’ve come to know and love on Martha’s Vineyard. But somehow, together as one on my plate, the memories they evoked were fresh enough to get me through this next month until summer, when I will be back at my mother’s table. Because somehow, even though my version of salmon with green sauce was good, fish is something that will always taste better from my mother’s kitchen.
From my mother’s kitchen, wishing a happy mother’s day to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Seared Salmon with Green Sauce
Makes 2 servings
Though my mother primarily made salmon, her searing technique is good for any type of fish with the skin on. Similarly, the green sauce can be adapted to include a variety of different herbs. See notes below for which combinations work best. And finally, I also recommend experimenting with the different ways to eat the dish itself. The green sauce thinned out makes an excellent dressing for a mixed greens salad with the seared salmon on top, and also mixed together, can make a great mayonnaise base for herbed salmon salad, which is what I had for lunch the following day.
2 salmon filets
½ lemon, juiced
For the Green Sauce:
about 2/3 cup herbs (I used 3 tbsp chives, 2 tbsp tarragon, 1 tbsp parsley)
1 tsp lemon thyme (optional)
1 egg yolk
¾ cup olive oil
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp lemon juice
salt to taste
TIP: If you’re serving more than 6 people, start the mayo recipe with 2 egg yolks. Use organic because there’s less likelihood of salmonella with free-range chickens.
Wash the filets and pat dry with towels. In a cast-iron skillet, heat a few tablespoons of butter until it has stopped foaming and is turning brown, or heat enough olive oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan until it is smoking a little. To test the oil, flick it with a little bit of water. If it sizzles, the oil is hot enough. Put the filet flesh side down in the hot oil/butter.
When you can see the fish is cooked (opaque) about halfway up and the flesh side has a brownish crust, turn the heat down and flip the fish.
When the filet looks nearly cooked through, spoon some of the lemon juice over the filet. When the bottom is fully cooked, set aside. Salt.
For the Sauce:
Follow a standard recipe for making mayo from scratch: basically, whisk an egg yolk in a bowl until it turns from bright to paler yellow which means it’s ready to accept oil. Add the Dijon mustard, then whisk in oil (I alternate olive with something milder like sunflower oil) drop by drop. After it’s clear that the mayo is amalgamating successfully and not separating, you can increase the oil from drops to a thin stream, always whisking like crazy. One egg yolk should accept up to 3/4 cup of oil. Then add the vinegar and lemon juice (in Spain they use lime) for acidity, then salt and white pepper to taste.
Whisk in the herbs and serve along side the fish in heaping spoonfuls.
NOTE: For the herb combination, use either chopped basil or tarragon or (mildest) snipped dill. I wouldn’t combine any of these. I like tarragon. Other herbs for the background: snipped chives, minced parsley, a little fresh thyme. If you use mint, do it very sparing so it’s just a hint. All told it should be about 2/3 cup of herbs.